Sunday, December 30, 2012

Pittsburgh- 4

The texture of snow is grainy
when you let it slip through your
fingers, not quite pristine, a dirty grey
where it touches the worn out streets

it can numb your fingers and
hurt your ears to make you understand
why strangers lower their heads while
walking, as if in deference

but the old man in 58 is undaunted
his eyes dart from side to side
to settle on the man sitting across
are you married, he calls out

four years now, the man responds
you be careful, chuckles the old man
I have known friends who came back home
to find their wives with their lovers

the teasing sun is out now to caress
us all through the windows but we
bow our heads anyway, not wanting
any more conversations with strangers.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Pittsburgh 3

Shopping at Giant Eagle
potatoes, onions, tomatoes,
coriander, mushrooms, beans,
carrots, curry powder, cookies, bread,
juice, milk, butter...
I take the wrong queue.

The woman behind the counter 
smiles... this one is for those
who unlike you have minimal needs
you have exceeded twelve items by one,  
but that’s alright, we will make an exception
this one time.

While another woman standing
behind, fishes out a discount card
from her bag and offers it to me.

Is it this skin, neither black nor white
a neutral brown to evoke these
acts of sympathy or something they
see in my eyes, something that stares
back from the mirror some days,
the yearning for colours, the craving for
languages ...

Inhabiting happy dreams some nights,
to stay back on moody mornings
cutting through the sounds of cars and a
noisy christmas party the neighbours 
celebrate with songs of youth...
bridge over troubled water.

 Vijay Nair

Sunday, December 9, 2012

'Us'...Not 'Them'

My wife drives. She is way ahead when it comes to this particular skill. Sometimes sitting next to her while she is driving helps me understand what she is up against whenever she gets behind the steering wheel. Most male drivers in the city don’t like women driving. This is regardless of the class they belong to. It’s not as if it’s only the semi literate professional drivers of cabs and large sedans who have a problem with women drivers. So do their more affluent counterparts. If they had their way they would run her out of the road. Often I find men overtaking her from the wrong side and afterwards glaring at her as if she forced them to break the rules.

The other thing that I notice and I am sure everyone else does too is the rampant corruption the traffic cops in Bangalore indulge in. I don’t think there is any other city in India where cops stand in the middle of the road and blatantly take bribes from those who have flouted traffic norms. It’s amazing how everyone living in the city colludes in ignoring this shameful eye sore. You have all these sting operations conducted by journalists in the homes and offices of corrupt politicians and public figures. Sometimes TV cameras have not spared even the government hospitals to make public the corruption. But no one has deemed it fit to travel across the city and capture in camera how blatantly these cops demand and receive bribes. When I ask my journalist friends why they tend to ignore the corruption of traffic cops, they tell me it is because the whole thing is very petty to get involved with. Excuse me, but keep adding these hundred and two hundred rupees bribes they take from every rule breaking driver and how much does it add up to? What’s the loss accruing to the system because instead of making these errant drivers pay the legal fine, the one hundred and two hundred rupees is pocketed by the traffic cop. And as we all know the rest of his colleagues affiliated to the police station he belongs to get their cut also.

The terrible bit about this whole phenomenon is that we try to sugar coat our indifference and cowardice as compassion. Yes, the policemen may be poorly paid and live in hard conditions but is it okay for us to encourage these custodians of law to turn blatantly corrupt? If we feel so strongly for them, we can always create awareness through the media and through our own protests about their low salaries and miserable living conditions. Turning them corrupt is certainly not a solution. Especially since they seem to have turned into Frankenstein like monsters and are a law unto themselves.

I am currently living in Pittsburgh in the US and the police woman who often manages the streets close to where I live, is a joy to encounter whenever I go out. She wishes all the pedestrians who are waiting at the signal. She holds up the traffic to help school children and the elderly cross the street. Since she intuitively recognizes my hesitation at the crossing as something that belongs to a foreigner, she always extends extra consideration towards me. She wishes me warmly every time I am about to cross the road and reassures me that it is safe to do so.

I have never encountered courteous behaviour from any of the traffic cops back home. Like I said we have turned them into shameless monsters, worse than the beggars we encounter on the streets. The rot is so all pervading.

Bangalore witnessed last week what happens when these three elements on the street collide. That is, a woman driving her car, the hostile man who not only rammed her car from behind but tried to make it seem that it was her fault and the corrupt traffic cop who we know must have wanted to make a quick buck from the erring driver but found himself stopped in his tracks by the woman driver who requested him to help her register a formal complaint against the culprit. No, I was not present at the scene of the accident but having lived all my life in India, and the last 18 years in Bangalore, it does not take much to add up the math.

The issue turned explosive because this particular woman happens to know her rights. She is a playwright and relevant theatre is always about protest. I happen to know her and have worked with her a number of times in different contexts. She is a person of strong opinions. Our relationship has been uneasy of late because however liberal and forward thinking I may pretend to be, I am an Indian man after all. As long as women I know assert themselves by agreeing with me, I am happy to be with them. But the moment they assert themselves by taking a divergent view, I start to believe they are unnecessarily aggressive. In this case, my relationship with this particular woman playwright has suffered because I felt she wrote an unnecessarily harsh review on a work by another friend of mine whose writing I admire very much.

I felt my playwright colleague attacked my friend without understanding the span and depth of her works. However when I learnt of this incident where a group of men surrounded and heckled her after the accident and the traffic cop instead of helping her, pushed and punched her, I knew I had to support her. She has more integrity than most people I know. She may be a bad critic in my opinion but she is a strong and honest person.

It is her honesty and forthrightness that gets her into trouble. Most people are unable to take it. And I include myself in that. But just because she is honest and forthright and stands up for her rights, there is no reason a clamor should build up against her. There are men and women who unable to confront their own cowardice in this matter would like to use the pseudo compassion we have for these rogue traffic cops. They talk about taking ‘a doggedly neutral stance.’

Anyone who has lived in the city of Bangalore has been witness to the aggression of male drivers towards their women counterparts and the antics of the corrupt traffic cops that always peaks during festival times and end of the year festivities. As if we owe them the bribe for allowing us to walk and drive in our city.

However the culpability of this crime does not rest with only the errant traffic cop. Certainly action against him should be taken. But action should also be taken against the man who crashed into her car. Action should be taken against the superiors of the errant policeman who are now defending him. The journalists who want to take a ‘doggedly neutral stance’ in this matter should also be identified and told off publicly by all right thinking individuals. Action should be taken against the mob of men who surrounded her to abuse her and make lewd gestures.

We should also take action against people like ‘us’ who have allowed this to happen. And the only way I see this action being carried out is by standing united and protesting together and peacefully against this shameful incident.   



Friday, November 30, 2012

Pittsburgh 2

now the city feels familiar, at least
in parts, the roads I walk on are friendly
like the lady in uniform who holds up the
traffic every time to let me cross
from one side of Federal Street to other.

the effusive salesman at Radio Shack
wants to sell me a service plan with the
recorder... he looks crestfallen when I tell him
the guarantees don’t work in the world he’s
not familiar with; I am only visiting after all.

I go to Starbucks and the cheerful waitress 
wants to know whether I had a good day...
buoyed by the greeting, I nurse a large coffee
for an hour sitting on a high stool and staring
at the world outside...  a woman passes by,
her shoulders hunched, she’s crying softly at
accumulated losses and unanswered questions.

but it is the young school boy, as old as my son
who catches my attention; he dances with abandon
to the delight of the three girls who surround him
two of his companions start to swirl too, keeping
pace with the frenzied beat of his tapping feet, but
one hangs behind and looks wistfully at the 
moving apparitions on a cold windy afternoon.

She is the one who doesn’t belong
She could be from any part of the world
She has been told she is plain.

Vijay Nair

Monday, November 26, 2012

Class Conflicts- 'Lincoln,' 'Good People' and 'The Stranger's Child'

Friends may find it difficult to stomach this but back in school I was really lanky. What they may not find all that difficult to believe is that I wasn’t particularly good at anything else apart from writing essays in English. My English teacher was fond of me. One day while she was taking a lesson on the American Civil War with one of the junior classes, a student perked up and asked her what Abraham Lincoln looked like. She thought for a while and answered ‘Do you know that boy in Class IX, Vijay Nair? I think he looks a bit like Lincoln.’ This was duly reported to me by my juniors when school got over and because I was always hungry for affirmation, I was delighted to hear that. I felt I mattered a little more than all my classmates put together, none of whom had the good fortune of resembling an American president.

I carried that happy piece of nostalgia with me when I went to see ‘Lincoln’ with two of my friends in Pittsburgh. As it turned out, the latest film by Spielberg held many more surprises to delight me. Daniel Day Lewis is brilliant as the tormented President leading a pack of rivals and trying to push the amendment that had to do with the abolition of slavery. 

The film is not a stereotypical biopic. It unfolds during the last phase of the American Civil War and concludes with the assassination of Lincoln.  The film portrays him not just as a great leader but also an astute politician. Spielberg’s job is made easy because of the accomplished ensemble cast he has at his disposal, the taut screenplay as well as the stupendous cinematography. It is a long film, around two and a half hours. But despite the inordinate length of the film, I was riveted to the screen for the entire duration. Some members in the audience actually clapped after the film got over and I had trouble resisting the temptation to join in.

For a film that concerns itself mostly with political wheeling dealings, my favourite scenes in the film are those that show Lincoln playing with his young son and one that doesn’t have Lincoln in the frame at all. Mary Todd Lincoln, played by Sally Field berates and taunts the radical Republican leader Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones, when he comes to attend a party thrown by Lincoln to win over his rivals before the vote. It’s not that Field is exceptionally good at hectoring but the scene is made memorable in the manner in which the recipient of her ire uses his silence to communicate myriad emotions. Tommy Lee Jones is a text book on what good acting is all about in that one scene.

There was plenty of good acting at display in Pittsburgh Public Theatre production of ‘Good People,’ directed by Tracy Brigden. The playwright is the Pulitzer winning David Lindsay- Abaire. Lindsay- Abaire’s most famous work is the visceral ‘Rabbit Hole’ that has also been made into a film with Nicole Kidman in the lead.

In a work rooted in class tensions, the playwright does well in the opening scene by paying a tribute to the most legendary of American plays, ‘Death of a Salesman.’  Middle aged Maggie working as a cashier in a Dollar Store is being sacked by her young boss, Stevie, who happens to be the son of one of the women she grew up with. She uses that relationship to win a reprieve much like Willy Loman tried with his young boss in the classic. Having that reference with us, we know Maggie’s life is going to spin into a downward spiral and it does, although as a character, she is much more feisty and upright than Loman ever was.

Maggie’s friends suggest that she tap her old boyfriend Mike for a job. Mike has made it good despite the shared neighbourhood of their growing up years. He is a doctor who works as a fertility specialist and lives with his trophy wife in the most affluent part of Boston. The reunion between the estranged lovers who belong to two different worlds within the same city can be milked for humour as well as pathos and Lindsay-Abaire’s mastery over his craft ensures that we laugh and cry with the characters on stage. It is a stunningly nuanced and layered script and the actors rise admirably to the demands of the edgy dialogues and the evocative pauses. I couldn’t detect a single false note in the rendition by a single member of this talented cast. I am happy I chose this play as the first to view in the longish stay I am going to have in Pittsburgh. I know I couldn’t have made a better choice.

‘The Stranger’s Child’ is not the first book I have read by Alan Hollinghurst. I did read ‘The Line of Beauty’ that won the Booker Prize and I am familiar with the elegant prose that Hollinghurst seems to muster effortlessly. But I have to admit that I preferred ‘The Stranger’s Child’ to ‘The Line of Beauty.’

 This one has an amazing structure. The plot leaps by a decade or more in every section and not only do we see the characters changing but also the British society dropping many of its old baggage and acquiring some new ones. Hollinghurst is the kind of a writer who can be sly and compassionate at the same time and that is always engaging.  He also has the ability to communicate through a single episode what lesser writers say in several chapters.

‘The Stranger’s Child’ is a work full of yearning and wistfulness and nostalgia and longings that we think we have lost until brilliant works like these bring it all back. Literary to the core, the strength of the book is that it is so smartly paced that once you have started reading the book, you don’t feel like letting it go.  When I had finished reading it, I knew I would revisit it again in a more leisurely manner.

It’s been a month and a half since I arrived in Pittsburgh and I have managed to watch a brilliant film, a great play and also read a really really good book after a long time. This in addition to all the research and writing I have been doing.

That’s not too bad. 

Friday, November 9, 2012

Pittsburgh Musings- Lessons from the United States of America

I have never been blindly enamoured of the US, although I have visited it a number of times.  As a writer in the last five years and before that when I was working with a multinational.  I am not a great fan of the US foreign policy. In one of the first plays I wrote, the protagonist starts one of his monologues with, ‘America has gone to war today. The world’s most powerful nation is preparing to drop bombs on scurrying children.’ 

However, every time I have come to the country, I have been genuinely overwhelmed by the hospitality and generosity of the Americans I have met. They have by far been the nicest people I have known in my life. Leaving me alone and giving me my space when I need it and at the same time being there when I crave for company. That can be the best gift a writer or an artist can ever receive.  

Today it was the turn of a gentleman I had never met before to appear in my life and change it for the better.  There are some people who make me touch genuine humility and he turned out to be one of them.

Peter Oresick is a poet and a professor of creative writing in one of the well known colleges in Pittsburgh.  He has also worked as the head of a publishing house and as the chief editor of a literary magazine in the past. I was introduced to him over email by one of his ex-students. He wrote back saying not only would he spend time with me answering my questions but he will be happy to take me around the city and the places I need to visit for my research. To say I was pleasantly surprised by his offer would be an understatement.

My friends know I don’t even drive back home in Bangalore. Relying on cabs and autos to take me all over the city, so forget driving in another country where even the rules are different. I am sure even if I tried, I won’t be able to reach anywhere. And that’s likely to be my greatest challenge for the next seven months.

I am not good at waiting for buses either. Five minutes of waiting and I end up telling myself, I will take a cab, never mind the expense. I will economize on something else. I am sharing all this to communicate how grateful I am if someone offers to drive me around.

Peter was exceptionally generous not only with his car but also with his time. He drove me to almost all the spots where monumental events had unfolded over the two hundred years of American history. The day was cold to begin with but warmed by his generosity, the sun came up and it turned out to be one of nicest mornings to be outdoors, since I have arrived here.

By the time we headed for lunch, I had dropped my inhibitions enough to ask Peter why he had set aside nearly one day to take me around the city. I had learnt by then that apart from his job and his writing, he is also a painter. I couldn’t stop thinking about what his wife and three grown up sons would make of him dedicating almost a day to a stranger he had never met before.  

His response completely disarmed me. He said he has travelled to quite a few countries and his hosts have taken the trouble to show him their cities and in his own way he was trying to repay them for what they had done for him. I resolved at that moment to do my bit when I get back home for anyone I know who has come down from another country and occasionally feels a little lost.

The tour of the city proved to be educational in more ways than one. Two of the localities we drove through were Homestead and Braddock. Once the hub of industrial activity, these were thriving communities until the mid 80s when the steel companies closed down, rendering thousands of workers unemployed. Parts of these localities continue to resemble a ghost town and those that still have people in them have turned into rough neighbourhoods. But I was pleasantly surprised to see how clean the roads were even in these parts.

The New York Times article that has got the world thinking of Bangalore as a city drowning in its trash, mentions Kalpana Kar getting frustrated at a neighbour whose servant goes and dumps the trash on the road despite her asking him not to. And I am sure Kar lives in one of the most affluent localities of Bangalore. So I guess the one thing we need to learn from the Americans and practice is cleanliness. It is humiliating to land  in a foreign country and discover that for the residents here, the city you live in is identified with filth and dirt. Especially when you know that it’s not some evil propaganda but the truth.

One of the spots that we stopped at was where one of the earliest industrial strikes in history took place.  This was at Homestead in 1892. Henry Clay Frick tried to break the strike by hiring an army of goons to attack the strikers who had laid siege of the factory. The strike ended badly for both the parties. The striking workers had to cave in eventually and Frick was forever painted as the ugliest robber baron of all time.

I kept on wondering why standing at that spot I got the feeling of déjà vu. It occurred to me much later that the story sounded similar to something I had read about a few months ago.

I don’t know whether the Henry Clay Frick story has a moral for all Indians. But it certainly does for a particular automobile giant with one of its plants in Haryana.


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Not a Casual Read

He appeared and reappeared in our lives for ten long years captivating our imagination like no other character fiction has created. First from the pages of the books that featured his triumphs and travails and afterwards in the magic the darkened cinemas offered. His friends were our friends, his victories ours to savour, his pathos our tears. For millions of Harry Potter fans like me, the emaciated and bespectacled boy is the ultimate hero and much after he vanquished the evil Voldemort and settled into blissful domestic bliss with his best friend’s sister, continues to be a part of our lives. Tirelessly embellishing it, smiling at us from bookshelves and DVD racks. Whenever I encounter him accidentally while surfing television channels, I am tempted to pause with a smile to caress all the memories associated with him.

Potter’s appeal was universal. From him, not just children, but adults too got life lessons on the power of unconditional love, the importance of having friends in life and how good must always triumph over evil. That his creator J K Rowling managed to do this without ever preaching from a pedestal was as much of her triumph as that of her creation. It was always difficult to be objective about the seven books, the Potter series spawned. How could we critically dissect any of the works that featured him, his friends and his school? Somehow it felt as if we were being disloyal to Harry, Ron and Hermione if we dared to pass judgement against their creator.

Now of course in hindsight we know that it was too much of a good thing. The signs were always there but carried away by our infatuation, we never bothered to analyze what kind of baggage it must have left the writer with. It’s no secret how another English author got fed up of her Belgian muse, Hercule Poirot, and couldn’t wait to bump him off.

Rowling has never publicly shared what she feels towards her immortal creation that changed not just her destiny but also the entire genre pertaining to children’s books. Of course we would like to know whether she holds Potter with the same affection that legions of his fans bestow on him but she’s not telling. All we have presently to add to our conjecture is that she has come out with a new book that is as depressing as the books featuring Potter were life affirming. There are no wizards or muggles in her latest offering. Only dementors who exist in human forms in a fictitious English small town called Pagford.

Bottom of Form
 ‘The Casual Vacancy’ is likely to hold the dubious distinction of being one of the most depressing books ever written. There is not a single ray of light to wash any of its numerous characters in glory. Everything from the setting to the characters is designed in such a way that it makes the reader recoil in horror and disgust. It’s as uncompromisingly bleak a take on life as it can get. Rowling has gifted her readers with her own version of ‘Clockwork Orange.’ Reading the book makes you feel she was mono focused on annihilating all the positive vibes we had imbibed from Potter and his friends.

William Golding, another British novelist of timeless repute had managed to say a lot about the inherent evil present in mankind with his Noble prize winning work ‘Lord of the Flies.’ But the setting of that one was understood by the reader to be in the middle of a nuclear war. And from that realization to make the connection that Golding’s work held a mirror to what the world had descended to with its weapons of mass destruction was not difficult. It was possible to have empathy for his characters however depraved they were in their ambitions and its execution. We could place them in the larger context and understand their descent into hell.  Rowling willfully and deliberately denies her readers that with her latest. 

There are five adolescents driving the plot in ‘The Casual Vacancy.’ Leading the pack are the nasty Fats and the victimized Sukhvinder. There is also the not so innocent Andrew in the first flush of love and his object of affection Gaia. And there is the unfortunate Krystal from the wrong side of the tracks, saddled with an addict mother and a toddler brother she wants to save. Krystal is the closest approximation to Harry Potter in Rowling’s latest. Except her creator refuses to salvage her. Just when Krystal is at the verge of redemption, Rowling decides to snatch away her lifeline plunging her into an abyss from where there can be no reprieve. Making her destroy that one thing that gave her life some meaning.

The adults in the book are all uniformly losers and even when the writer tries to make amends to some of them towards the end we are long past caring. All of them without exception are mean and selfish.  Consider this. Three of them have the chance to rescue a child from drowning but none of them get down to doing it, preoccupied as they are with their own petty concerns.  

It is only when the reader has reached the climax of the book after battling frustration and anger for at least one half of the 500 odd pages the book in hard cover comprises of,  that it all starts to make sense in a strange way.  We realize Rowling is holding a mirror to the world that is inhabited by the middle class not just in England, but perhaps in all parts of the developed world. That is why there is no salvation for any of the characters. It’s not because she couldn’t do it but because she didn’t want to. Think about the numerous characters she redeemed in the Potter series including that nasty brat Malfoy. Not as if she’s not capable of it if she wants to. Her choices are deliberate in her latest work. All is not intended to be ‘well’ in this one.

Looks like Rowling has positioned herself as the ultimate prophet of our times. If in her first seminal creation, she taught us how everything ennobling was to be found in an imaginary world of magic and wizardry beyond our reach, with her follow up act she has managed to communicate we must wake up and smell not the roses but everything that we have destroyed in our own selfish pursuits. Life, according to her latest work will go on not because the scars will stop hurting but because ultimately like all the characters who eventually survive in The Casual Vacancy, we will learn to make our peace with our demons. 

This is another of her lesson well worth internalizing although the quibble is that she could have imparted the same wisdom with smart brevity and not wasted so many words on the shallow adults who take up too much space in the first two sections without doing anything to warrant that attention.

‘The Casual Vacancy’ is an enigmatic book. It will never lend itself to frenzied adulation but that does not mean it is a work without any merit. Rowling could have been the Enid Blyton of our times and rested on her laurels by creating variations of the work that made her the richest author of all times. Instead she chose to look at life with filters caked in the grime and filth of our times in her follow up act. 

Now that is as brave a feat as any that the Potter boy attempted. 

Friday, October 12, 2012


More than the jetlag
there are other things
that need getting used to

 when strangers ask
 you for directions
learn to turn the smile rueful
and announce like them
you may be lost too

it is fall in this country
and the leaves have turned
the colour of heaven
you want to touch them all
and count their veins

the sun is surprisingly warm
through the glass panes
and one of the lilies
placed in a square vase
on the dining table has wilted

in the restroom of a cafe
you run into the man who
will play the cello for
rumbustious numbers later
he asks you to pass the soap
‘first rule, hands need to be
clean before performing,’ and
our smiles collide in the mirror

some days are about the
smell of sameness

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

City of Asylum and House Poem

I am in Pittsburgh and much as I miss the family back home, it feels as if I have come to visit another home tucked in another country. Mainly because of my extraordinarily generous hosts, Diane and Henry Reese who have set up City of Asylum, Pittsburgh, to provide sanctuary to writers under peril.

I first met them when they agreed to host me when I came to the US five years ago as part of the International Writers Program, Iowa. I was the first writer to be hosted by City of Asylum who was not under any kind of peril in his own country. The institution had simply arranged to host one writer every year from the program. I happened to be the chosen one in the first year when the arrangement got going. I was extremely ambivalent about coming to Pittsburgh the first time.

I was not sure what awaited me. But from the time I landed and met Henry and Diane, something felt oddly familiar about the city. Like there was a deep connection and bond with it. And then it hit me. Pittsburgh used to be a major steel city of the US in the 70s. Much like the city I grew up in India, Jamshedpur. I guess the proposal I submitted for the Fulbright grant happened only because I traveled to Pittsburgh and was hosted by City of Asylum in 2007. My grant is to research a book I plan to write on the impact of globalization on the steel communities of Pittsburgh and Jamshedpur.

 The house where I stayed was House Poem, something of a tourist attraction in the city. Huang Xiang, the Chinese poet and the first writer provided sanctuary by City of Asylum, lived in the house for over two years. He wrote some of his poems on the wall in beautiful Chinese calligraphy. My favourite among them is ‘The Wisp of Light.’ The translation reads-
 ‘There is a kind of space
  that’s a different vastness
  There’s a heavenly body
  that’s a different great arch ‘
  The cells that permeate my body
  are unattainably distant
  The unreachable constellations
  find shelter in my flesh in my blood
  Death, not to be denied rises  
  as it slowly falls
  Life, not to be denied.'
 For some strange reason, I experience this poem as a profound Haiku.
My hosts have very thoughtfully provided me with the same house to stay this time. And I love the fact that I   live in a space that is walled by poems. It feels special. Last time I was here, I barely stayed a month but got a good deal of writing done.

There is something very energizing and expansive about living here. This time round, I am going to be here for eight months and really look forward to getting a lot of research and writing done. It helps that Diane and Henry are such wonderful hosts and mentors. After the grueling air travel that lasted over 24 hours, not only did Henry pick me up from the airport, sharing with me on the way all that has transpired in the last five years, when we reached home, I discovered Diane had thoughtfully stacked the pantry and the fridge with loads of food, wine and beer. If that was not enough, they also invited me for dinner to their place later. I feel blessed to be in this city, in this house and in this neighborhood. 

Of course I have spent quite a bit of time on Skype with the family back in India in the last two days I have been here. And because I am living alone like this after a long time and was stupid enough to watch Paranormal Activity 3 on TV, just a few days back, I sleep with the light on. Another writer from the IWP, Iowa,is joining me as a housemate in November.

I am looking forward to that. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Age of Innocence- My Week with Marilyn, Barfi and The Saint Zeta Society

When it comes to Marilyn Monroe, all of us, especially the men, will always be twenty three year olds. We long to breathe the same air as she did. And know instinctively if that had happened, we would have led a different life, deeper, more charmed, more significant somehow. That’s why our empathy is with the wide eyed young man, Colin Clark, played brilliantly by Eddie Redmayne in ‘My Week with Marilyn.’

Clark was the third assistant director for ‘The Prince and the Showgirl,’ the British film that united the acting legend Sir Lawrence Olivier with the world’s ultimate sex symbol. The book is based on his memoir. There is something about Redmayne’s performance that prevents us from mocking him for his helpless devotion to Marilyn. Instead we gawk at her with his eyes. And when she decides to make him her chosen one on the sets of the film, we don’t envy him. We only know he is not at fault for breaking young Lucy’s heart.

Lucy is portrayed by the luminously beautiful Emma Thomson. But we know her beauty, her charm, her youth and innocence is going to be no match to the Monroe magic. She is not the hero of this fairy tale. Strangely enough, for a film based on two cinema legends, the scenes that stay with you afterwards are those that have Redmayne and Watson in them. Both Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh use their craft and inherent brilliance to their interpretation of the two legends. But it’s evident they have worked hard at becoming the characters. They are not good enough to conceal the labour that has gone into their performances. Redmayne and Watson, on the other hand, just are.

‘Barfi’ is also about innocence, albeit of the special kind. There are films that let down their actors just as there are actors who fail the film. Anurag Basu’s films always fall in the former category. However the acting is always brilliant, almost undeservingly so, in Basu’s films. Right from his first film ‘Murder’ that turned Mallika Sherawat into a star for all the wrong reasons. In a sex starved country like ours, all the attention went to Sherawat’s bedroom sequences with Emran Hashmi. What got overlooked was that she had turned in a very convincing performance in that one. Afterwards, it has been all downhill for her. The same can be said about Shiny Ahuja and Kangna Ranaut in ‘Gangster.’

Barfi has three actors who compete and collaborate with each other to rescue a screenplay that is always in the danger of sinking. The car that is pushed in a lake in the film may very well be a metaphor for the writing. But the talented trio of Ranbir Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra and Illeana D’Cruz manage to salvage the film.

I didn’t think this is Kapoor’s best performance. He is very good but not as good as he was in ‘Rockstar.’ He has worked very hard on this role and his performance is well crafted rather than heartfelt. Some of the chaplinesque physicality he brings to his role has already been displayed in ‘Ajab Prem ki Ghazab Kahani.’ We love him as long as we are watching the film. But it is not a character that stayed with me after the credits had rolled.

The female actors in the film however are top class, each notching brownie points for the consummate ease with which they play the two women in love with Barfi. Illeana D’Cruz is no newcomer. She has been around in the South Indian film scene for a while now just like Asin before she made her Hindi film debut in 'Gajini.' Ironically enough, she is likely to bag all the promising newcomer awards unless Karan Johar manages to get it for the three new actors featuring in his ‘Student of the Year.’ That one is going to be as corny as hell. As bad if not worse than ‘My Name is Khan.’ Mark my words.

Barfi ultimately belongs to Priyanka Chopra. It is not easy for the female lead of a commercial cinema to turn unattractive for a scene, let alone for the length of an entire film. Chopra is not a trained actor like Kapoor but she uses her gut and instinct to touch the inner core of Jhilmil, her character. For me, the most powerful scene in the film is when Chopra steps out to tell D’Cruz, Kapoor belongs to her in the climax of the film. Both of them manage to triumph over the lacklustre script in that moment, making it one of the most poignant moments ever in a Hindi film.

Thanks to Flipkart, I manage to procure Ruth Rendell’s latest ‘The Saint Zita Society.’ The book reminded me of the time when I was on my first writer’s residency in the University of Canterbury, Kent. In a dinner party hosted by one of the professors in the university, I made the mistake of talking about domestic helps we employ in India only to face disdainful looks by everyone present. ‘We have done away with that sort of thing many years ago,’ commented a scornful British writer, another guest.

Not if one goes by Rendell’s latest. The book is about a society formed by the drivers, gardeners and domestic helps of an affluent neighbourhood in London. Rendell is in top form here, treating her character with a healthy dose of compassion and humour. There are some innocents in the book including the victim. The man who is behind the murders is delightfully wily though. Just as the MP’s wife and daughter who take turns to bonk the good looking driver. All very vintage Rendell.

I got my American visa a couple of days before all the trouble erupted for the film that has angered a part of the Islamic world. Now that I have less than three weeks to leave, I can spend time reading books and watching plays and films with family. Also going for a short holiday this weekend. So maybe I will write about that in my next post.

Happy Ganesh Chaturti to all of you.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Mind the Gap

I was in Class VI when I chanced upon ‘Room on the Roof’ by Ruskin Bond. The book belonged to an older cousin who had it as her school text in Class X. I read it in one ecstatic gulp that lasted a little over an hour. For days afterwards, I fantasized about growing up to be this writer who lived in the hills of Dehradun, met fascinating characters and wrote about them.

A good thirty years later, my son’s English teacher was delighted to hear we had been to Bond’s home town to meet him and he was asked to work on a collage with the author and his stories as the theme. Coincidentally, my son also happened to be in Class VI at that time. I hope I am not in a minority when I say Bond is the most influential Indian writer of our times for all those who have had the privilege of being educated in English in post independent India although I have never come across any power list that features him. Margaret Thatcher once famously remarked 'Power is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.'

Power lists and the legitimacy of those who feature in it are not the only disagreement I have with Shashi’s Deshpande’s recent piece in The Hindu on the waning influence of artists and writers titled ‘The Case of the Missing Artists.’ Deshpande raises many pertinent issues. When she says ‘There are no debates about ideas, only controversies, often created by the media itself,’ we can instantly relate it to how the Jaipur Literary Festival was hijacked by the absence of Salman Rushdie this year.

However I don’t agree with Deshpande when she laments the dumbing down of language and literature in India and the gap widening between serious and popular works and their creators. This division has always existed world over. The gap is very much present between Ian Mcewan and Jeffery Archer in UK. In India, regional literature has always had this gap. I grew up in Bihar and read as many books in Hindi as in English and knew even in those early years that there was a difference between the works of a Gulshan Nanda and a Manu Bhandari. It didn’t stop me from reading both the authors just as I dug into a James Hadley Chase thriller and Gone with the Wind with equal relish.

The real issue as I see it is that for a long time Indian Writing in English was perceived to be an elitist preoccupation and protected by snobbery. The authors and the publishers colluded in this process and the works of writers like Ashok Banker who tried to negotiate the space of popular/ pulp fiction in the 80s and the 90s did not receive the attention they deserved. The emergence of a new breed of writers in the last one decade who are unapologetic about wanting to entertain the reader changed the rules of the game. Thanks to a Chetan Bhagat, an Amish Tripathi or an Advaita Kala, publishers are ready to give popular fiction its due. And if there has been a dumbing down by these writers of more serious fiction, I am afraid the first stone is inevitably cast by the writer of more serious works who is finding it difficult to share the identity with writers wanting to tell stories to entertain without bothering too much about the intricacies of the language. If by ‘badly written’ the allusion is to the language and grammar of these books, aren’t editors and the publishers as much to blame? Hemmingway may not have won the Nobel Prize in Literature if someone hadn’t fixed his spellings for him.

One should also add here that writers of popular fiction in India come from the same class as authors of literary works. Many of them are from premier management and technical institutes and gave up lucrative professions to write. If they write a particular kind of book, we have to assume they do it as much out of choice as writers of literary fiction. Yes, there has been a refreshing democracy in the Indian Writing in English space of late. But that has more to do with the fading away of feudal processes.

We don’t have palace writers and artists anymore and that may not be such a bad thing after all.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

All About Eve

The two parts of Gangs of Wasseypur strike a strange note, odd but not discordant. The victims are all men in this testosterone navigated drama despite the significant presence of female characters in the film. Think about it. Coppola’s Godfather trilogy had wives, mothers and sisters claiming screen space but they performed to a script framed by the men in their lives. Kashyap’s magnum opus marches to an entirely different tune. Not that the women remain untouched by violence perpetuated by the men in their lives. But the interesting thing is, be it Nagma, Sardar Khan’s first wife or his second spouse Durga, both of them are more than willing to be the catalysts for the blood and gore that lashes the dusty by lanes of Wasseypur. While one happily sends her husband to his death, the other extorts her son ‘tum logon ko khana kaise hazm hota hai, after her husband gets shot in cold blood. She knows that one barb is enough to turn him into an avenging angel. She is also aware that he will end up paying with his life to humour her vengeance, but it is amply evident from the subtext that the consequence matters little to her. The male characters in the film may be busy terrorising the town they live in, but in a neat quirky turn, all of them seem to be a little afraid of the women in their lives. Right down to Definite, Durga’s remorseless progeny.

Starting with his first success, Kashyap has steadfastly refused to treat his female characters as whining victims in any of his films. His version of Devdas had only one wimp, the protagonist. It was the two women in his life, Paro and Chanda who made all the decisions for him. Whether it was the former cycling with a mattress tied at the back of her bicycle to make love to him in the mustard fields or the latter awakening his conscience in the climax. Kashyap obviously likes his women to assert themselves, however male and macho the fictional context of his cinema may be. And thankfully most of the new age film makers seem to be following on his footsteps without a trace of self consciousness permeating the feminist undertones of their films.

Be it the comic Vicky Donor or the compromised Cocktail, the female protagonist is increasingly being projected as more nuanced and ultimately more substantive than her male counterpart. After the failure of her first marriage, Ashima Roy in Vicky Donor is slow to respond to the maverick hero’s advances but once she thaws, she treats the relationship with utmost integrity, coming clean with him about her past while he conceals his ‘donor’ status from her. But it is in the treatment of the secondary female characters the director Shoojit Sircar scores. Vicky’s beautician mother and his feisty grandmother are a treat to behold in their drinking sessions late in the night. Ashima’s middle aged aunt who has remained single is another marvellous characterisation. There is no back story to her but the writing by Juhi Chaturvedi is so clever that the viewer understands why she has remained unmarried without any explanations being provided.

Critics have been disappointed with the tame ending of the Imtiaz Ali produced and Homi Adjania directed Cocktail. Gautam Kapoor opts for the more Indian Meera but there is something about the abandon with which Deepika Padukone surrenders to her portrayal of Veronica that you leave the theatre feeling she is better off without the confused Gautam and his domineering mother. We would like to believe that she is going to eventually realize all her attempts to fit into the stereotype was a big mistake. It is the spunky Veronica who ends up being the hero of the film. Cocktail is her show and knowing the strange subversive ways of Adjania from his first film Being Cyrus, this may very well have been his intention.

Of course when it comes to Vidya Balan, only a fool would try to fit her into the conventional Bhartiya Nari mould. From Ishqiya to No One Killed Jessica, from The Dirty Picture to Kahaani, Balan has managed to change all the rules pertaining to the female protagonist in Hindi cinema. When you find her doing a silly Lavani item in an entirely undeserving film, it’s not only your aesthetic sensibilities that are affronted you also get angry with the film maker for wasting her like this. Hopefully Kashyap will cast her in one of his films soon and viewers can rejoice at the coming together of the most revolutionary director and the most astounding actor of our times.

It must be a sign of our times that even Yash Raj films seems to have outgrown wallflowers who liked being courted in the snow clad only in the sheerest of chiffons. Zoya in Ishaqzaade can out curse her ruffian suitor and climb walls to aim at him with a country pistol. The only way he can get the better of her is by resorting to lies and deception. It is also amusing to note that it is the villainous Parma who is treated as an object of lust by the local courtesan Chand. We don’t know whether this was intentional on the part of director Habib Faisal, but it is a nice touch nonetheless, turning the paradigm of the ‘female item’ in commercial cinema on its head.

The portrayal of women characters is all the more interesting when the work is helmed by a female director. In Kiran Rao’s directorial debut, Dhobi Ghat, Shai one of the film’s four protagonists is not afraid to stalk the man who has a one night stand with her because she believes they have a connection. Nor does she think twice before using a young boy from the slums who is besotted by her to achieve her dubious ends. Thankfully Rao’s directorial skills ensure that the viewer continues to vouch for Shai’s vulnerability and does not condemn her.

Empowered women are increasingly making their presence felt even in the popular works of regional cinemas. Manimegalai in Engeyum Eppothum directed by newcomer M Sarvanan puts her silent admirer through many tests including getting him tested for HIV before she allows him in her life. Vazhakku Enn 18/9, another recent success in Tamil Cinema has the victim of an acid attack extracting revenge on the policeman who has exploited her tragedy to make a quick buck for himself. She refuses to remain a mute victim.

Neighbouring Kerala has not been lagging behind when it comes to a more rounded depiction of female characters rather than cubby holing them as victims or paragons of virtue. The young nurse Tessa is no saint in 22 Female Kottayam helmed by Aashiq Abu. She has no problems about going to a pub with her boyfriend to have a drink or living in with him without getting married. When he betrays her to get her brutally raped not once but twice by his boss, she waits for her bruised body and soul to recover before she goes about extracting her revenge. What is interesting are the long counselling sessions she has with him after chaining him to a bed in the climax. Veteran director Kamal, whose Perumazhakkalam was remade as Dor by Nagesh Kukunoor has made a film on the plight of women from Kerala who are sent to Saudi Arabia as domestic helps. His Khaddama could very well have been a melodramatic tear jerker but the director’s vision as well as the intelligent interpretation by the actor Kavya Madhavan vests the character with a luminous dignity.

Bengali Cinema too is no longer dependent solely on Aparna Sen and Rituparna Ghosh for sensitive depiction of women on screen. In the last one decade, Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury has depicted some really complex women characters with shades of grey in films like Antaheen and Aparajita Tumi. His films usually revolve around the politics of marriage and his female protagonists are often the perpetuators of the conflict they find themselves in. But even when they are not, they come across as strong and capable individuals with clear perspectives on life and living and turn out to be much more interesting than the men in their lives.

Quite obviously, the new breed of Indian film makers are not just portraying women more realistically, but also imbuing them with their own enlightened sensibilities without bothering about the existing frameworks of the sacrificing heroine and the evil vamp. As long as Indian cinema is driven by the male superstars of the 100 Crore clubs, Chikni Chameli will continue with her shenanigans with a 100 men panting behind her. But the new age film makers are clearly not impressed. They seem to be a little bored of her just like the more discerning audience. And hopefully their enlightened take on the gender divide will sooner or later permeate down to chauvinistic males across the country. From Guwati to Mangalore.

Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Protagonist's Tale- Mafia Queens of Mumbai and Gangs of Wasseypur 2

I had read decent reviews so I picked it up from a book shop last year. But there was something about the cover that prevented me from reading it. For nearly a year, the book lay untouched on my study table. Last week I made a day long trip to the city and carried it with me to read on the way. That too happened more by accident than design. I tend to procrastinate a lot in the mornings and get all rushed at the last minute, laying my hands on what I can find at that moment to carry with me to read in the car. Thankfully, I didn’t have to rue my choice. ‘Mafia Queens of Mumbai- Stories of women from the ganglands’ turned out to be a page turner. Simple and compelling. One of the best works of creative nonfiction I have read by an Indian author. Rather authors. The book has been written by S.Hussain Zaidi with Jane Borges. Both of them are Mumbai based journalists.

S Hussain Zaidi needs no introduction. His earlier best seller Black Friday was translated into celluloid by none other than Anurag Kashyap. I have read somewhere that Kashyap considers Black Friday to be the best film he has made. Unfortunately Paanch and Black Friday are the only two films of Kashyap’s that I haven’t watched. But like Kashap’s direction, Zaidi’s writing too brims with energy. The narrative shifts from third person to first person from essay to essay, bringing to life a group of spunky women who are at ease being avengers and murderers rather than nurturers and victims the Indian society wants them to be. What they seem to lack in physical strength, they more than make up with their wile and cunning. It is a little difficult to believe women like these actually existed, but their photographs in the book provide the evidence.

From the matriarch of the Mumbai Mafioso Jenabai to brothel madam Gangu Bai and from the avenger Ashraf to the drug peddler Mahalaxmi Papamani, each of these feisty women take it upon themselves to make a mark in a world ravaged by the most vicious of men. For lovers of film trivia, Monica Bedi, Abu Salem’s moll who was a part of the reality show Big Boss a few years ago also features in the book. But her story is probably the only tepid piece in this otherwise riveting book. Maybe because she is the only one capable of suing the writers. Otherwise this is a brilliant book, to use the cliché, a rare gem.

It must be because I watched Gangs of Wasseypur 2 the same evening, but I found myself focusing on the female characters more. They have a lot less screen time as compared to the men in the film but that’s understandable given the gangster ethos of the film. What is interesting is how Kashyap has made the women an essential part of the narrative. They may not actually fire the bullets but it is amply clear that if it wasn’t for them, the men wouldn’t act the way they do in the film. Maybe not even be what they end up being.

It is the ‘other woman’ Durga who hastens Sardar Khan to his death, feeling no remorse for her part in his death afterwards. Though she is hardly present for most part of the film and appears in less than half a dozen scenes in the movie, her rage and frustration at her son Definite opting to be a lackey of Faizal Khan, Sardar’s legitimate son is palpable. There is a tongue in cheek tribute to the 70’s Bachchan blockbuster Trishul made by the Naseeruddin Shah of the current generation, Nawazuddin Sidique in the film so we are left in no doubt about Kashyap’s reference point, so much so that the hazy visage of Durga in the climax made me feel the Waheeda Rehman of Trishul had been vindicated once again in a film made a good three and a half decades later.

Kashyap having claimed a sort of feminist credentials in his interviews can be counted on to construct the legitimate wife with a lot more substance than Yash Chopra accorded Geeta Kak. Richa Chadda loses none of the fire that she displayed in part 1 as the ageing matriarch in the follow up. It is a bravura performance, all steel and grit as she turns her sons into gun toting devils to avenge her philandering husband’s death. I would have liked Kashyap to include a scene between her and the illegitimate offspring of Sultan, but in the absence of that, the wedding song where suddenly tears start rolling down her cheeks, qualifies as the moment of the film. The clever actor she is, she lets us know without the aid of dialogues, the suffering of her accumulating losses. First the husband and then the children. Pathos is a new emotion for Hindi film weddings.

The two daughters in law are a study in contrast. There is a lovely touch of humour to Huma Qureshi’s Mohsina. Whether it is her avid TV watching or the way she leads the way in the bustling bazaar, ragging her husband for looking much older than her. The bitter sweet song she sings to her husband is also sweet in the ears. When I was growing up in Bihar, we used to call these songs ‘ant sant gaana.’ So there was a nice unexpected touch of nostalgia to watching the film.

The other daughter in law gets a wholly undeserved bullet in her head. Of the four women in the family, she is the one who fits best the conventional mould of the traditional Indian women. She tries to reason with her husband and extends warmth to her estranged brother. When she is shot in the film, you wonder whether it is because that is what the narrative of the film demanded or Kashyap wanted to punish her for not displaying enough spunk and spirit like his other female protagonists.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Hard-edged vision: Margaret Atwood.

( Another of my earlier pieces in The Hindu on one of my favorite writers)

It’s difficult to unravel the primary identity of Margaret Eleanor Atwood. Is she a visionary philosopher who happens to use the twin tools of poetry and prose with effortless ease and felicity or is she a writer who happens to shape and articulate her vision with such clarity that countless readers and fans all over the world end up owning it for themselves. We have been as enriched by her prolific outpourings as we have been enlightened by her philosophical musings. We can claim with a measure of confidence that in the more than four decades of her writing, she appears to be on a mission to make the world a better place by making her readers think more and feel more.

Atwood burst into the Canadian literary firmament with her poetry in the early 1960s. She was rewarded by the Governor General’s award for her collection The Circle of Game a few years later. The fiction happened by the end of the same decade. Her first novel, The Edible Woman, was a rant against sexual roles inflicted on women. The protagonist Marian appears to delight in playing a passive aggressive role with her fiancée and her lover who are two distinct entities. Her increasing inability to eat as the story progresses is based on real and explicit fears of being consumed that the reader can easily resonate with. With her very first novel, Margaret Atwood communicated to the world that her writing is going to poke roughly rather than stroke gently.

The disagreements and debates were to follow when her treatise on Canadian Literature came out in the early 1970s. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian literature is looked upon as an enduring reference text for anyone interested in the country’s literature and the country itself. It is a priceless insight on how Canadians view themselves. According to Atwood, most if not all literary works from Canada emerge in the context of survival and the protagonists take on the psychological baggage of being victims owing to the chequered history of the country. The framework espoused by Atwood has its detractors to this day who claim that she chose works that would support her hypothesis but the book endures as an academic as well as literary text.

Atwood continued to dazzle in the 80s with her prose as well as verse. She also demonstrated her full range as a writer in this decade. From penning television dramas to entertaining children with her stories, writing poetry and prose fuelled by her leanings towards civil rights, the writer in her was at the height of her prowess. Her feminist leanings were increasingly evident in the collected criticism Second Words. She appeared to be carrying the discourse further when she came out with her novel The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985. The almost surreal tonality of some of her earlier works seem to have found a home in the matching context of the science fiction genre the novel adhered to. It is a measure of Atwood’s genius that placing her tale in an alternate reality did not rob the story of any of its literary sheen. The novel not only went to win many prestigious awards but also became a huge popular success. This phase of prolific output also saw her writing for the stage.

However, her best seems to have been reserved for the last two decades. Alias Grace, published in 1996, can easily qualify as the best fiction she has written. A fictional biography of a notorious real life murderer, Grace Marks, who lived in the mid-19th century, it expertly mixed and matched a fictional first person narrative with actual journalistic accounts that appeared during that time to weave a complex and engaging tale of perception versus actual reality. Atwood’s Grace remains enigmatic and compelling to the very end because of the shadings the author gives her protagonist. While it may be read as a great story, Atwood, never content with the obvious, uses every subversive writing trick to raise pertinent questions about the nature of truth and how it gets contaminated by issues of power, culture and identity. During this phase, grumbles were getting louder about the way the wise judges deployed by the Booker committee were repeatedly ignoring her works. It seemed to be the sole literary recognition that had eluded Atwood. Atwood had to wait for the new millennium to have the slight repaired.

The Blind Assassin not only won the hearts of readers all over the world but also the coveted prize. The novel is a lesson for all aspiring novelists about structuring their works in progress. A seeming labyrinth in its narration, each piece of puzzle fits in perfectly as you turn the pages, enchanted as much by the style it adapts as you are impressed by the intellectual rigour she places on telling the story. The book achieves the near impossible: telling a complex tale of hurt and loss through the simple device of multiple narrations that repeatedly meet and fork. The accolades flew in fast and furious but Atwood had moved onto her next, Oryx and Crake, another Sci-Fi novel that came out in 2003. She has since then come out with two prose collections and a recent announcement talked of a new novel on its way.

We look forward to that. Just like millions of readers across the world delighting in every new offering she decides to surprise us with, ranging from a reinterpretation of Homer’s Odyssey to a children’s Musical. In her own words: “Like preachers, I sell vision, like perfume ads, desire or its facsimile. Like jokes or war, it’s all in the timing.”

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Veteran Adolescent

( A tribute to Gulzar I wrote many years ago for Deccan Herald)

Among the honors conferred this year on the Republic Day is the Padma Bhushan awarded to Sampooran Singh Gulzar. The felicitation comes just a year after he won the Sahitya Academy Award for his short story Dhuaan. Awards at a national level are nothing new for Gulzar and he has garnered three of them for his films - Best Screenplay (Koshish), Best Director (Mausam) and Best Lyricist (Ijazat). But the Sahitya Academy Award for a short story was somewhat of a paradox. Gulzar deserved it much earlier for the poetry he has penned as film songs. In fact, poetry is intrinsic to all the work Gulzar is associated with - the films he directs are lyrical, the dialogues he pens have a flow and his lyrics contain vivid imagery appealing to our sublime senses.

Gulzar was born in 1936 in Deena, Jhelum District which is now a part of Pakistan. After the partition he came to Delhi. He started as a poet and was a part of the Progressive Writers association. Hence his literary roots are firmly grounded in poetry. He joined Bimal Roy productions much later in 1961. As a result, Gulzar appears to have imbibed the best of two rich literary traditions in India - Urdu as well as Bengali. A fact that is amply borne out by the fact that he has translated into celluloid one of Saratchandra’s novels (Khushboo) and two of Samresh Basu’s works (Namkeen and Kitaab). Ijazat is also based on a Bengali short story.
In 1988, Gulzar made the landmark television serial on Mirza Ghalib with Nasiruddin Shah essaying the role of the immortal Urdu poet. The influence of Ghalib seeped in unobtrusively when Gulzar penned a song for a film he directed - Mausam. The song resonates with the flush of falling in love and all the longing it encompasses - dil dhoondta hai, phir wahi fursat ke raat din…baithe rahe tasssavure jaana kiye hue. The best one can do with a transliteration is ‘The heart longs for the days and nights of leisure. Lounging around, doing nothing, a happy emptiness within, playing with your thoughts.’

The Bengali influence is best reflected in the songs from Khushboo - ‘Oh Maaji re…apna kinara nadiya ki dhara hai’. The song succinctly captures the dilemma of the boatmen who make a living from the river. A literal translation would be ‘O Boatmen, our shores are no more than the flow of the river.’ Something that does scant justice to the essence of the song that is replete with the philosophy of life and death.

Almost as a counterfoil for the same film Gulzar penned the coy and teasing ‘Bechara dil kya kare.. sawaan jale… bhadon jale’. (What can the poor heart do, all the seasons are burning)? In fact Gulzar’s penchant to transcend from the sublime to the ludicrous is legendary. He penned a song for Thodi si Bewafai which ‘boasted’ of lyrics like ‘Pink sharara silaooing' ( I will stitch a Pink Sharara). But lest anyone take this as a criticism of Gulzar’s poetic sensibility, it would be prudent to point out that this one is a rare failure. He has often used imagery that seems absurd to etch deeply evocative pictures. Consider this priceless gem from the first film he directed Mere Apne- ‘Roz akeli aaye, Roz akeli jaaye, Chand katora liye bhikaran raat’. (She comes alone and leaves alone, this beggar woman night with her begging bowl of the moon). The deft simile transforms night into an ultimate metaphor for loneliness. The song is hauntingly rendered by Meena Kumari on screen playing an old woman deserted by her family.

Yet Gulzar is widely regarded as the thinking man’s poet lyricist. And not without reason. The very first lyrics he penned for the classic Bandini is an immortal gem: ‘Mora Gora Ang Lai Lae. Mohe saanv rang dai de’ (Take away my fair body and let me trade it for the dark shades of my lover). The song like the film was far ahead of its time and dealt with a woman’s choice to have her lover as well as the price she has to pay for this indulgence. The sensuous song went well with the theme of the film.

The lyrics of Gulzar have displayed an awesome range from being bathed in childlike glee to pathos-laden soliloquies. But what has distinguished them is that they have invariably been in blank verse. Apparently the late R D Burman with whom Gulzar had a long and fruitful association had a really tough time setting to music the award winning ‘Mera kuch saaman tumhare paas pada hai’. The song goes on to request the ex lover to return tangible as well as intangible gifts from the remnants of the spent passion. ‘Ek sau solah chand ki raatein, ek tumhare kaande ka til, gili mehendi ki khushboo, jooth mooth ke shikwe kuch, jooth mooth ke vaade sab yaad kara doon, sab bhijwa do, mera wo saaman lauta do.’ (One hundred and sixteen nights of the moon, and the solitary mole on your shoulder, the fragrance of the moist mehendi, some pet peeves and some empty promises, return all of that, return all the moments I spent with you). Even the most blasé listeners were moved!

Many of his fans believe Gulzar deserved the national award a couple of decades earlier for the most romantic lines ever penned for a film song that featured in Khamoshi - ‘Humne dhekhi hai in aankhon ki mehekti khushboo, haath se choon ke inhe rishto ka ilzaam na do, sirf ehsaas hai ye rooh se mehsoos karo, pyar ko pyar hi rehne do, koi naam na do’ (I have felt the lingering fragrance of those eyes, don’t try and touch it with your hands to brand it as a relationship, it is only a sensation, this thing they call love, feel it with your soul and let it remain at that, don’t cubbyhole it with a name).

A worthy successor to that one is ‘Katra katra milti hai, katra katra jeene do, zindagi hein behne do, pyaasi hoon mein pyaasi rehne do’ from Ijazat. (I can only quench it drop by drop, I can only live it drop by drop, there is life, let it flow, I am thirsty, let me remain thus). A song that unpretentiously sighs the longing of a woman in love. But the two most pithy and powerful lines swathed in passion happen in a song from an inconsequential film Swayamvar. ‘Tumhari nighahen bahut bolti hai, zara apni nazron par palkein gira do’. (Your eyes speak of too many things, please cover your gaze with your eye lids).

Gulzar has an extraordinary gift for capturing the maverick spirit of the wondering heart. One of his earlier songs went ‘Hawaaon pe likh do, hawaaoon ke naam, ek anjaan rahgir ka salaam’ (Write on the breeze, dedicate it to the breeze, an unknown wonderer’s salutations!) In the same vein, nearly two decades later he wrote ‘Ay Zindagi gale laga le, humne bhi har ek gam ko ghale se lagaya hain, hain na…’ ( Hey Life, please embrace me just like I have embraced all the sorrows…)

No wonder, getting the better of the restless spirit featured as the opening bhajan in Guddi, the song that introduced Jaya Bhaduri to movie goers. ‘Hum ko man ki shakti dena, man vijay kare, doosroon ke jai se pehle khud ko jai kare.’ (Give us the strength to capture this mind of ours so that before we capture others we are able to overpower our restless souls.)

Hututu, the last film Gulzar directed was a critical and commercial failure. But as poet lyricist he remains unchallenged in the Hindi film scenario as was evident from two of last year’s releases - Filhaal and Saathiyaa. In Filhaal, the man endearingly implores his beloved to ‘ungliyoon mein pehen lo ye rishta’ (Wear the relationship in your fingers) and the title track of Saathiya, an ode to the tinkling laugher of the beloved, is punctuated with classic Gulzar imagery ‘barf giri ho vaadi mein, un mein lipti simti hui, aur hansi teri goonje, un mein lipti simti hui, baat kare dhuan nikle, garam garam ujla dhuan, naram naram ujla dhuan.’ (In the snow clad valley, you are swathed in wool, your laughter echoes, and you are swathed in wool, and from your mouth emerges smoke, the warm and fair smoke, the soft and fair smoke).

Clearly at sixty-seven, Gulzar is a veteran but his lyrics still have all the passion of an adolescent in love.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Celebrating the Human Spirit

(I wrote this for the Deccan Herald, way back in 2005. And now I find some site for students is charging for this essay!!)

When Toni Morrison received the Nobel Prize for literature a decade ago, she told yet another story. About an old lady. Wise but blind. The old lady could belong to any land, any culture. She is both the ‘law’ and the ‘transgression’ of that land. Her clairvoyance is unmatched. One day a bunch of cynical youngsters decide to expose her. They visit her and ask her whether the bird they hold in their hand is dead or alive. There is a long pause and the youngsters start feeling triumphant. Just as the sniggers begin, the old woman responds softly and sternly. ‘I don’t know’, she says. ‘But it is in your hands.’ The old woman’s wisdom wins once again. In a deft stroke she has felled the arrogance of the doubters. She has shifted the attention from the assertion of power to the instrument through which the power is asserted. The author went on to liken herself to the old woman and the bird to her writing, in her speech.

Ever since she wrote her first novel, Morrison has left seven brilliant novels in our hands. For us to cherish the beauty of the human spirit that remains unvanquished by the greatest of horrors unleashed on it. Morrison writes about the most savage and barbaric acts committed by human beings in the most luminous prose possible. The paradox in her writing makes her truly the wisest woman in the literary horizon. To say she writes about the black experience in a racist culture would be doing her a great disservice. Her characters may be localized to a particular race but the truths she speaks are universal. They may very well be about the Dalits in India or the Muslims in Bosnia.

Toni Morrison was born Chole Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio. Her parents moved to the north to escape the problems of southern racism and she grew up relatively unscarred by racial prejudices. She spent her childhood in Midwest and read voraciously from Jane Austen to Tolstoy. Her father told her folktales about the black community, transferring his African American heritage to another generation. In 1949 she entered Howard University in Washington D.C. America’s most distinguished black college. She continued her studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. She wrote her thesis on Suicide in the works of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf.

A suicide sets the context for Morrison’s commercially most successful book Song of Solomon to unfold. Robert Smith, ironically an agent of the Life Insurance company, decides to ‘fly’ and liberate himself, setting the context for the hero of the tale ‘Milkman’ to come to this world and discover the truth about his identity.
Suicides and the nobility associated with them are integral to Black history in America and the Black folklores. In the inhuman conditions of the ships that carted the Africans to their destiny as slaves, the act of suicide was truly an act of liberation from the degradation and indignity of the life that awaited them. Only the truly fortunate got the opportunity to ‘fly’ into the sea and liberate themselves.

The act was perceived to be a blessing and not an act of cowardice. It is interesting to notice the parallel with Johar, the tradition of Indian women leaping into fire to save themselves from dishonor as spoils of war, as defeat loomed large and the enemy marched to claim them.

Another characteristic of the works of Morrison are that they are invariably lit with the hues of soft feminism. In Song of Solomon, Milkman and his friend Guitar are amazed by the mystical appearance of a peacock over the building of the used car lot where they stand. As the bird comes down, Milkman mistakes it for a female. Guitar corrects him “He. That’s a he. The male is the only one that got the tail full of jewelry. Son of a bitch.” Milkman asks why the peacock can fly no better than a chicken and his friend answers: “Too much tail. All that jewelry weighs it down. Like vanity. Can’t nobody fly with all that shit. Wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.”

Clearly in Morrison’s scheme of things even though it is something men all the time aspire for, it is the women oppressed in all cultures, who can truly fly and experience liberation.

Sula gets to fly in a manner of speaking. In this classic tale of exploring morality, Morrison engages with the socially correct Nell, who conforms to all the mores and her sexually promiscuous friend Sula, who lives on the fringes. Morrison cleverly colors her story with an early incident that bonds the two women to a lifetime of friendship and betrayal. They are both responsible for the death of Chicken Little by drowning. Sula simply cries while Nell’s first concern is ‘somebody saw’. Morrison manages in that passage to construct the irony of all tales with a moral. It is the girl who will be later considered evil by her community who actually mourns the loss, while her moral friend is only concerned about herself. As to what binds the two girls together despite their different temperaments, Morrison has a ready answer. “Because they had discovered years before that they were neither white nor male, and that all freedom and triumph was forbidden to them, they set about creating something else to be… daughters of distant mothers and incomprehensible fathers… they found in each other’s eyes the intimacy they were looking for.”

In The Bluest Eye, Morrison’s first novel that was published in 1970, Pecola the protagonist is obsessed with the bluest eye - a metaphor for beauty that Pecola feels will magically transform her life if she acquires a pair of them. She never achieves this feat but in the end turns insane and liberates herself. In Jazz, Joe, the unfaithful husband of Violet, kills Dorcos in a fit of passion. The fragmented narrative follows the causes and consequences of the murder. The city of New York is all-pervasive in its influence in the book and so is Jazz, the escape from reality it provides for the Blacks in the city.

Tar Baby is about the dilemma of breaking free of the umbilical cord. The need to wrench free from the maternal bond and create a set of values, expectations and desires for oneself independent of the maternal. Jadine Child’s mother dies when she is twelve but this does not liberate her from the aura of the mother. She encounters a ‘mother/sister/she’ in a supermarket “with eyes whose force had burnt away their lashes”. The woman in yellow with “too much hip, too much bust,” and eggs in hand makes Jadine uncomfortable and yet she also falls in love with the woman.

The conflict determines the flow of the narrative. In Paradise, her first novel since she won the Nobel prize, Morrison explores the nature of all Paradise. According to the author, all notions of paradise stem as male enclaves and the interlopers are always the women, defenceless and threatening. When women get together and get powerful is when they are attacked.

However it is in Pulitzer prize winning, Beloved that the mystical lyrical voice of the author is most clearly heard. If ever there was a song in the form of a novel, Beloved would come closest to it. The book deals with slavery and infanticide. It was inspired by the true story of a black American slave woman, Margaret Garner. She escaped from a Kentucky plantation and sought refuge in Ohio. When the slave masters overcame them, she killed her baby in order to save the child from the slavery she had managed to escape. Sethe, the protagonist tries to kill her children but is successful only in murdering the unnamed infant, Beloved. Later she is rejected by her slave masters and set free. The ghost of Beloved, who reappears in their lives, years later, as old as she would have been if she had been alive, haunts the house where she lives with her teenage daughter.

The book often veers into the metaphysical and is illuminated by a prose that is both haunting as well as melodious. “For a used-to-be slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love. The best thing, he knew, was to love just a little bit; everything just a little bit, so when they broke its back, or shoved it in a Crocker sack, well, maybe you’d have little love left over for the next one.”

Clearly, in the literary horizon, Morrison has ‘The Bluest Eye.’

Wednesday, July 25, 2012


you recited Shakespeare, head popping
out from the window, entirely inappropriate
i thought, lines from Romeo and Juliet
reckless lovers, distant on Bangalore streets

later we feasted on death by chocolate
the corner cafe, but that was before
you turned sullen because there was no
space in our house for the stray dog you loved

you must have thought us mean, content
in our lives, of domestic helps to pitch in
with the cooking and cleaning and returning
from bookshops with overflowing bags

today i am ready to tell you the lie of
that story, i never liked you, never, but
you came to the greenroom to feed my ego
and we drifted into something temporary

something that made you flinch
when we watched Dead Poet’s Society
you were always a Pritchett fan you said
i found that detail unnecessary and boring

we moved to other things after that, things
we disagreed on, like your vegetarianism
and my disregard for commas and semi colons
only to stop talking altogether for years

not that it matters, but do you know
i walked out from a reading when i discovered
you in the audience, it would have been awkward
for both of us with mutual friends looking

but today there is something in the air,
something only you could have understood,
like lines from a poem, this blank gaping hole
for a very long time, almost eternity.

Vijay Nair

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Enduring Monuments

(This appeared in The Hindu, in 2009. One of the best pieces I think I wrote for the Literary Supplement on two of my favorite poets)

The doomed relationship of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath continues to hold morbid fascination for their admirers across the world. There have always been two distinct camps owing allegiance to each of them. The discord between the fans and admirers of the two has not even spared the grave of the unfortunate Plath. It has been repeatedly desecrated by her grief-crazed fans who did not want Hughes’s name on it along with hers. After she killed herself, Hughes was to bear the cross of being “her husband” for the rest of his life although many critics consider him to be the more superior poet.

Scathing criticism
Plath’s suicide coincided with the rise of feminism in the west. Because so many of her poems were scathing criticisms of domesticity and motherhood, she became an icon for the movement. This further contributed to the hysteria against Hughes. Germaine Greer was to confess later, “Ted Hughes existed to be punished — we had lost a heroine and we needed to blame someone, and there was Ted.” Plath had a history of depression and attempted suicide numerous times even before Hughes came into her life. In her poem “Lady Lazarus” written a year and a half before her death, she documented her failed trysts:

“I am only thirty./And like the cat I have nine times to die./This is Number Three./What a trash/To annihilate each decade.”

Her unfortunate history did little to dispel the anger against Hughes. What further turned the tide against him was that within a few years of Plath’s death, Assia Wevill, the woman who had caused the breakdown of their marriage, committed suicide after murdering the daughter she had with Hughes. There have been speculations that Hughes’s mother died of shock after learning about the deaths of his mistress and her daughter. Hughes had faced universal condemnation and notoriety after Plath’s suicide. The shock of another two lives being lost over her son was too much for the ailing woman.

Stoic silence
Hughes maintained a stoic silence in the face of the recurring allegations that he drove his wife to her death. Barely a year after the tragedy his mistress inflicted on herself and their daughter, he married again, a nurse, who played mother to the two children he had with Plath and put up with his life-long philandering. Much as we love his poetry, it is difficult to condone the inhuman side Hughes seemed to display towards the women in his life.

The ambiguity lies in the literary gems penned by him that owes to her and the luminous poems she wrote that wouldn’t have been possible without his encouragement. In the early part of their marriage, she had long non-productive spells of writing. A kind of literary collaboration made home in their togetherness where she took on the responsibility of typing his works and sending them to publishers while he seemed to have helped her whenever she was stuck. One of her early masterpieces came about because of the intervention from him.

“The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right,/White as a knuckle and terribly upset./It drags the sea after it like a dark crime; it is quiet/With the O-gape of complete despair.” (The Moon and the Yew Tree, Sylvia Plath)

At her best
The separation from Hughes may have done irrevocable damage to Plath’s self-esteem as a woman and a wife; but it went on to enrich her productivity. She was clearly at her best when dogged by misery. In her depression over the betrayal, she was averaging three poems a day. When she sought closure for the two relationships that were to define the course of her life and her poetry, with her father who died when she has only eight and the husband who left her devastated, her rage spilled out in “Daddy,” one of the most potent poems to be ever written.

“There’s a stake in your fat black heart/And the villagers never liked you./They are dancing and stamping on you./They always knew it was you./Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.” (Daddy, Sylvia Plath)

Partial redemption
Hughes partially redeemed himself by putting his promising career on hold for a number of years after her death, editing and bringing out a volume of her collected poems that introduced a much more mature voice than the world had met in her first and only collection of poems to be published when she was still alive.

There is evidence to suggest he wrote poems dedicated to her every year on her birthday after she died. He brought them out in a collection of 88 poems “Birthday Letters,” shortly before his own death.

“It’s at night/Sometimes I drive through. I just find/Myself driving through, going slow, simply/Roaming in my own darkness, pondering/What you did. Nearly always/I glimpse you — at some crossing,/Staring upwards, lost, sixty year old.” (The City, Ted Hughes)

The personal lives of Hughes and Plath would always be up there for public scrutiny. What matters to lovers of poetry however is that these two creative souls completed each other in their lives and deaths in ways outside the construct of conventional morality. The poems they wrote because they had each other are enduring literary monuments to outlive all the negativity they brought to their personal relatedness.


For those interested in literary trivia, Plath’s birth anniversary and Hughes’ death anniversary fall just a day apart on October 27 and October 28 respectively.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Enigmatic Icon- Rajesh Khanna

Sister, older to me by some 14 years, brought Rajesh Khanna home for the first time. As a family, we were hooked to Hindi cinema, with no clear preferences. Any movie, released in the neighbourhood theatre was good enough for a Saturday outing, followed by Masala Dosas and Rasmalais in Bombay Sweet Mart, that faced our favorite cinema hall. The actors were all interchangeable. From Dilip Kumar to Rajendra Kumar to Shammi Kapoor to Sanjay Khan. Or for that matter Mala Sinha or Waheeda Rehman or Nutan or Mumtaz.

We relished their company on screen and ate heartily afterwards before heading home to have Eastman colour dreams. Hoping the next Saturday would happen soon. Movies ran for a long time those days. There were maybe four to five theatres in a small town like Jamshedpur and most of them were not considered respectable for families to patronize. So the interval between the viewings could stretch to be as long as two to three months, maybe more if the film decided to celebrate a 100 days run.

Sister went to Patna to study medicine and came back on a vacation with a picture of Rajesh Khanna hidden in one of her text books. She shared it with the rest of us, away from mother’s eagle eyes. The capital of Bihar had many more theatres and the girls in her hostel had turned into ‘fans’ after watching Aradhana.

He played a double role in that one, the father and son. There was little to distinguish one character from the other. There were no nuances in the interpretation of the two. He crinkled his eyes just the same while singing songs in both the avatars. But sister told us that he was awesome. In a manner of speaking that is. I don’t think the word awesome had found its way into the dictionary in that era. As the oldest, she set the trends at home and the rest of us followed blindly. Because she told us she was a fan, the rest of us turned into fans too. All of us except one of my brothers, that is. He wanted to build muscles like Dharmendra and did not want to be distracted by the limp wristed antics of Khanna. We felt let down by the betrayal.

Memory is an unreliable ally. However looking back, it does seem the man who had turned into a phenomenon in the film industry caused the first major rift among the five of us siblings. But we were fortunate in comparison. There were other families we knew of, with young girls, who decided to get married to Khanna’s picture. He was the first Indian actor to generate mass hysteria. There had been other rakes before him like Dev Anand who blinked more furiously than Khanna could ever manage. But no one had the kind of impact the superstar wielded on the women of India.

Khanna unshackled the urban Indian woman and taught her she had the same right to lust as her male counterpart. What reality denied her, she could access in her dreams when Rajesh Khanna serenaded her by a bonfire and turned her pregnant.

I think this was Khanna’s biggest contribution to Indian cinema. I don’t think he planned to be a feminist icon. If one goes by what film journalists have to say, he was quite a cad. Dumping his live-in girlfriend of many years to marry someone who was in her teens. But despite all the tales of his meanness, Khanna prevailed in the national consciousness like no one else did. He even caused the heartbreak of the meanest scribe of his times.

Maybe we lived in simpler times. If an actor had to hold the attention of the audience for the entire duration of a three hour movie, he had to exude charisma. Otherwise he had to graduate graciously to be a character artist like Balraj Sahni. Acting chops were secondary. Cute mannerisms ruled. And Khanna came armed with a boxful of them. He chose them at will, tilting his head when he wanted to, shaking his waist whenever the fancy caught him, admonishing the women around him for falling prey to tears.

They say Anand was his best performance. I am not so sure. It was all Khanna even in that one. We didn’t feel for the character, we felt for the actor. When Anand died, it made us sad to think Khanna is mortal too. That accounted for our tears, our pain when the movie ended, with his voice teasing from a recorder. Not having Rajesh Khanna in our lives meant we could no longer have romance in our lives. That’s how it feels even today.

Now that he is really dead, will we ever have romance in what remains of our lives?